Faith, Reason, and Regeneration

One more thing needs to be said by way of understanding faith and reason. I alluded to this briefly in a late edit to yesterday’s blog post, but I need to expand upon it. Here’s a somewhat more complete statement:

Faith in God is entirely rational, but rationality will not cause faith in God. Faith is not just cognitive but also relational: to trust God is not only to agree to facts about God but to yield to his always-good will and to enjoy a loving relationship with him. As such it involves the submission of the will, not just the assent of the mind.

The natural state of humans, however, is to rebel against God; and since that is our natural condition, we cannot bootstrap ourselves out of it. It requires the infusion of new life, called regeneration by theologians, which only God can provide, and which he gladly does provide on his own sovereign initiative.

Having said that, I find myself at an uncharacteristic loss as to what to say next.

For one thing, this is a publish-and-duck topic. I expect all manner of things to be thrown at me for it. Skeptics and atheists find this teaching simply incredible. Christian denominations have different opinions on the matter, and different opinions as to how important the differences are.  There’s hardly anything I could write that could generate more controversy coming from every direction.

For another thing, while I could explain every phrase in that paragraph, I’m not sure how much time to devote to it. I’ve already committed myself to several weeks of blogging on Christian evidences, and I keep thinking of new, necessary, preliminary material to cover. This topic could take weeks to cover. I do want to get going on the evidences, after all.

Faith and Regeneration

I did not, however, want to leave things where I did in my last post, with the impression that all it takes to come to faith is reasoned reflection on relevant truths. It literally requires an act of God, to bring us to new life.

And isn’t it clear that we  have more to overcome than we could possibly scale on our own? God’s ways are good and perfect. Ours fall far short (Romans 3:23). None of us comes into this world loving God, or even knowing God well enough to want to love him. Though some of us are better and others worse—at least by appearances, and with respect to the outwardly visible commandments of God, none of us by our original nature worships him alone. We all set up other objects of veneration besides God, including ourselves. The result of this is spiritual separation from God—also known as spiritual death.

To have a relational faith in God is to experience life directed toward God, life with God, and life in God. But we’re dead toward God, in our natural state. We can’t open our spiritual caskets from the inside. Only God can revive us toward him. He invites us to come to him, out of the domain of darkness, where we stumble around blinded by the darkness or, if we turn toward the light, dazzled into disability by its brightness. He himself must conduct us along the way.

So the act of turning to God in faith is an act that depends utterly on God’s initiative. Yes, it depends on our response, but even that is his gift (Eph. 2:8,9), given freely to those who will accept it from him. (In that last phrase there is a world of questions to ponder, which I will not explore here, for then this would certainly go on for hours and still not reach resolution.)

A Relational Faith

I know that this will sound strange in unbelievers’ ears. I ask you to inquire of God about it in prayer, and to explore his ways by meeting Jesus Christ himself, in the Gospel of Luke or John, perhaps. This is because coming to faith in God is a matter of coming face to face with him, and discovering  his goodness is great enough to be worth giving your will over to him. He created you. He loves you. He knows what’s best for you, and he wants to give his best to you. Do not fear he will not overpower your personality, for he will instead bring it to full flourishing in what is good, true, and right.

Faith, Reason, and Regeneration

I know, too, that some will say this contradicts everything I’ve said about the rationality of faith. If faith comes by way of something other than reasoning, how could it be rational? The answer is that the rationality of the conclusion simply is what it is, regardless of how one comes to realize it. If (as I will come to soon, I hope!) there are good reasons to believe in Christ, then there are good reasons to believe in him. God grants it for some to see those reasons before regeneration; it is part of the process he chooses to use to prepare us for the new life he gives. Others see little of the reasons beforehand, but look back afterward and say, “Now it makes sense.” Others have little care for evidences and reasoning, and simply enjoy the relationship for what it is.

Again, some will say this is merely talking around rationality; that it’s really rationalizing instead, making excuses for confirmation biases and other irrationalities. I don’t think that’s the case, however. It’s not ad hoc, for one thing: it’s part of a unified, coherent belief system that goes all the way back to the very beginnings, in Genesis. It’s certainly not something Christians would make up to make out beliefs more palatable. And finally, the test of a belief system’s rationality is not in what it requires to accept it volitionally, psychologically, or relationally, but how it stands up rationally. To treat it any other way would be (in all likelihood) to fall prey to the genetic fallacy or ad hominem.

I’ve probably said enough, even though it’s impossible really to say all that should be said on this topic. As I press the publish button I will duck. But not really: for I am quite confident that this teaching can stand up to challenge, so therefore I can stand, too.

Comments 26
  1. Ethan

    Thanks for presenting this series Tom. I look forward to following it. The following aspect of faith isn’t difficult for me to understand: “to yield to his always-good will and to enjoy a loving relationship with him.” I realize I understand this, because I tested the inference, as you say, by relinquishing my will and taking up God’s will. But I wonder had I never tested the inference, had I never experienced this loving relationship, whether I might be opposed to this aspect of faith as well.

    I agree with SteveK, your statement yesterday was great,

    “From dating my wife I gathered evidence that led me to infer that she would be a great woman to be married to. I tested that inference by marrying her, which in a moment of weakness she agreed to do. That was an act of faith in each other. We couldn’t test it in advance, of course.”

  2. Larry Tanner

    I appreciate also that aspect of yielding to reality and accepting that reality and life are not against me — or anyone — even if they do not favor me.

  3. MikeH

    Tom, I’m glad you added this post. I thought the previous one was lacking this emphasis. Acceptance of the facts is necessary and rational, as you say, but that’s not all there is to it. (Actually I don’t think a person even has to accept all the facts though there are some essentials.) This whole God-and-us thing plays out so much deeper than the material level. At the center, it’s spiritual. I realize this is unacceptable or unbelievable for materialists. Romans 10:17: “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” The message is what God has to say to each of one of us personally. If we’re willing to hear that personal message when we hear the words of the good news about Christ then we can believe.

  4. GrahamH

    Tom: The precise definition of faith seems to be a slippery thing going by your posts. I am not too sure how it is settled even among Christians. But the conventional seems to be faith is an assent to a claimed revelation of God communicated through sacred literature or particular religious affiliations and teachers. So 1, is this creed that faith is an irrevocable commitment, goes far beyond any evidence that could be offered to support it? If I am following your comments correctly, the answer seems to be yes. And even further, 2, do not some Christians make claims of absolute certainty as if there is no doubt? This is a binary true or false position. Do not either of these 1 and 2 open you up to charges from the likes of Boghossian that you are claiming to know what you either don’t know, or can’t know?

  5. Tom Gilson

    Are you finding the definition a little hard to pin down? Why would that surprise you? It’s a rather complex topic, after all.

    That’s why Boghossian’s simplistic take on it is so ridiculous.

    I’ll be back with answers to your specific questions in a bit, but my wife says it’s time now to pack up and leave my table at Barns & Stable Barnes & Noble.

  6. Tom Gilson

    o 1, is this creed that faith is an irrevocable commitment, goes far beyond any evidence that could be offered to support it? If I am following your comments correctly, the answer seems to be yes

    Far beyond? No. It rests squarely upon the knowledge we have. The facts upon which it rests are not provable beyond any possible doubt, but they are secure enough that a rational person can rationally assent to them.

    I’ll make that case over time, but that’s the quick answer to your question.

    And even further, 2, do not some Christians make claims of absolute certainty as if there is no doubt? This is a binary true or false position. Do not either of these 1 and 2 open you up to charges from the likes of Boghossian that you are claiming to know what you either don’t know, or can’t know?

    Let me get this straight. Because some Christians somewhere claim absolute undoubted certainty, therefore I am open to Boghossian’s charge? What is this, guilt by association?

    Let me be clear, too, in case I was not clear enough earlier: there is conviction that surpasses the publicly observable evidence, in the confidence that God himself places in the hearts of his followers.

    It is entirely consistent with the available evidence, which is my first answer to the question that’s been asked a thousand times, “how do you know your conviction is true and other religions’ is false?” That question was first posed to me, by the way, by a Christian apologist named Paul Little in book called Know Why You Believe. That’s just a tidbit for those readers who think they’ve come up with an unexpected problem for Christians.

    It’s also entirely consistent with the overall worldview of Christianity, which says a relationship with God is a relationship, and it’s initiated by God. A Christianity that excluded God from communicating anything at all to his people would not be Christianity at all.

    My point is that Boghossian’s take on faith is simplistic. It fails to take account of the evidence there is, which is adequate to support a rational conclusion concerning the facts of the faith. It also assumes that there is no knowledge apart or beyond evidence, which is to say that it assumes that if there is a God it is not the God of Christianity. It doesn’t argue the Christian God out of existence, it assumes that God out of existence. Shoddy thinking, that’s all it is.

  7. GrahamH

    Tom: “The facts upon which it rests are not provable beyond any possible doubt, but they are secure enough that a rational person can rationally assent to them. I’ll make that case over time…”

    It will be good to see that case, but is it not so that like you say, there are gaps between the provable facts and the conclusions drawn. You have previously alluded to other methods such as philosophy and theology. But are not these methods primarily based on values rather than facts, and can lead to very different conclusions, with no evidence strong enough to arbiter the truth?

    Boghossian’s take on faith is simplistic and provocative, but he does not seem to be picking on Chritianity specifically and therefore does not need to supply an accurate rendering of Christian faith. You could say he has described what he sees as characteristic of all Faiths in the way they “leap” from facts to conclusions assisted by the philosophy and theology I described above. This then seems to lead to “The Complication”- contradictory faith positions that can not all be true and offering no arbiter of the truth.

  8. Tom Gilson

    But are not these methods primarily based on values rather than facts, and can lead to very different conclusions, with no evidence strong enough to arbiter the truth?

    No. Not in the service of decent apologetic arguments. In that context they are fact-based; or if they are value-based, then fact- and logic-based arguments are supplied for the values.

    I fail to see how bringing other faiths into the picture makes his simplistic rendering any more likely to be true. Contradictory faith positions can be adjudicated according to the facts upon which they rest. That’s not to say it’s uncomplicated, but the principle is as familiar as it could possibly be: check the facts.

  9. GrahamH

    Tom – I will happily wait for you to reveal these decent apologetic arguments to see if they convincingly meet this criteria.

    Regards, Graham

  10. Cornell

    I think we should just turn the tables on Boghossian and push him to justify ‘reason’ itself given his view on the nature of reality that suggests we live in a godless universe.

    We both agree that ‘rationality’ exists, however

    How does ‘rationality’ come from a nonrational, unintelligent, purposeless, unconscious naturedidit mechanism?

    If Boghossian cannot justify this, then he concedes his worldview as being false, as a godless universe cannot account for rationality.

  11. Cornell

    “Tom – I will happily wait for you to reveal these decent apologetic arguments to see if they convincingly meet this criteria.”

    Graham make sure you use the same amount of skepticism on these apologetic arguments as you would use on a godless universe.

    That’s all we ask, so hopefully you’ll comply.

    ty

  12. GrahamH

    @ Cornell 11, Sure. And don’t assume I posit a godless universe simply by asking questions.

    @ Cornell 10, Have you thought that one through?

  13. Cornell

    “@ Cornell 11, Sure. And don’t assume I posit a godless universe simply by asking questions.”

    Then what should I assume? Should I just assume that when you ask this “I will happily wait for you to reveal these decent apologetic arguments to see if they convincingly meet this criteria.” you are a Theist asking for decent apologetic arguments?

    “Have you thought that one through?”

    yep, so do you have a point to make with this tu quoque?

  14. bigbird

    It is entirely consistent with the available evidence, which is my first answer to the question that’s been asked a thousand times, “how do you know your conviction is true and other religions’ is false?” That question was first posed to me, by the way, by a Christian apologist named Paul Little in book called Know Why You Believe.

    As I recall this too was one of the first apologetic books that I encountered as a teenager in the late 70’s, along with McDowell’s More than a Carpenter (naturally followed by Evidence That Demands A Verdict).

  15. GrahamH

    @ Cornell 13, I find it interesting and ironic you think it unlikely a Theist to ask for decent apologetic arguments! Are they hard to find?

  16. GrahamH

    Really? A response or challenge to a claim is not a worldview. Denying that a claim has been demonstrated is not a worldview.

  17. Tom Gilson

    His point clearly is not that there is any surprise in a theist asking for decent apologetic arguments. He’s challenging you to show your hand.

    You told us not to assume you believe in a godless universe. You’re asking for “decent apologetic arguments,” which I think he said ironically, since you’re asking for something far more stringent than that. And with that, he asked, “should we assume that you are a Theist?” — also in an ironic tone.

    Who was it that said recently, there’s no laughter if you have to explain the joke?

  18. SteveK

    But are not these methods primarily based on values rather than facts, and can lead to very different conclusions, with no evidence strong enough to arbiter the truth?

    Values are derived from facts, not the other way around. The fact of F=mA is meaningless and valueless as a fact standing all by itself. Facts stand in relationship to other facts and the derived meaning/value comes from that relationship.

  19. GrahamH

    @Tom #18: Christians have made a claim. Boghossian has challenged that claim. Cornell says the response is to get him to justify reason based on his apparent worldview. I say a challenge to a claim is not a worldview. That line of discussion seems to have terminated there unless you think Cornell’s suggestion has decent apologetic merit.

    Also, I didn’t ask specifically for decent apologetic arguments. You said in #8 decent apologetic arguments can answer my question, but these were not supplied so my question remains unanswered. I understand you are working on a essay on evidence that attempts to address this. I am happy to let apologetics label their arguments decent or whatever. I will simply try to scrutinise them on the basis of reason and evidence.

  20. Tom Gilson

    Graham, if you want to keep fighting this, I’ll ask Cornell for permission to pass along his email address to you. Whether he agrees is up to him. Personally I’d advise him against it. For my part, I’m just not going to respond here any further.

  21. cornelll

    Yawn, only in your mind Graham, though if you want to debte the issue via email let me know.

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